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Sunday, 17 October 2010





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Developing Sri Lanka:

Now, it's the turn of the diplomats

Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya

The name 'Jaliya Wickramasuriya' needs no introduction. With a short period of less than two years he created a name by proving himself as a diplomat who had a difficult struggle to erase off the negative and harmful propaganda about Sri Lanka which was carried out by the pro-LTTE and anti government elements in the US.

Today having met and updated over 75 US representatives and Senators and important US committees like the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and House Committee on Foreign Affairs about Sri Lanka's stand and the positive progress in the post conflict scenario, Ambassador Wicramasuriya said that it was the time for the Sri Lankan diplomats to contribute their share to make Sri Lanka stand on its own feet.

"As Ambassadors, this is the time to prove ourselves. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Government have done the most difficult task - eliminating terrorism and bringing peace to the country. Now the turn is ours. If all the Sri Lankan Ambassadors throughout the world work more aggressively now to bring investment, promote tourism and talk about the positive developments that are happening in this country, then automatically the President's vision will become a reality", he said.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer he said he would continue to have effective dialogues with the US Tamil diaspora, which majority had already extended their fullest support to rebuild Sri Lanka.

"We've seen a lot of positive changes in attitudes. Most Americans support us. They know we are a democracy and that we've defeated terrorism. When our critics make noise we move quickly to get our story out. The more Americans we get to travel to Sri Lanka the better things will get", he said.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q: It is said the US-Sri Lanka historic relationship has strengthened and how do you evaluate the present status?

A: Sri Lanka and the US have a very strong relationship at present. We just concluded a very successful week of trade and investment talks with the U.S. Government and U.S. companies. I think Sri Lankans will benefit from more U.S. direct investment in the coming days.

Both the trade and diplomatic relations remain strong. We have worked very hard to make sure that those in Washington get the correct story, the positive story, about Sri Lanka's progress.

Q: What are the important achievements gained through this relationship?

A: Three key events happened in the past year that have helped Sri Lanka in the U.S.

Two senior aides for Senator John Kerry and Senator Richard Lugar, who are the Chairman and ranking members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Committee came to Sri Lanka last year. They spoke to a broad cross section of the community, including the Secretary of Defence and other senior government and opposition leaders, as well as members of civil society. They went back to the US and the report they released stated the importance of Sri Lanka to the USA, both in terms of location and otherwise. I believe this report was a key turning point in the relationship between the US and Sri Lanka.

Another important moment occurred during the visit of External Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It was his first official international visit in the capacity of External Affairs Minister.

When Secretary Clinton met Prof Peiris, she was very supportive of the lessons learnt and reconciliation commission. She stated that, such commissions of inquiry have played an important role in advancing accountability and redressing wrongs in other countries emerging from periods of internal strife.

She also said that experience in other countries has shown that such a commission that has the credibility and legitimacy within the country has a valuable role in advancing accountability and that they are very supportive of the approach taken by the Sri Lankans.

During the discussions, with regard to resettlement of IDPs we compared our resettlement plan with other countries. In Sri Lanka, resettlement was not after a disaster; it's after an armed conflict. There is a considerable difference between resettlement after a natural disaster and resettlement after a war. We have thousands of landmines to remove.

The international resettlement average in the world is over 17 years, but we have resettled more than 90% within less than one year.

The meeting with Secretary Clinton went a long way toward telling those in the United States that Sri Lanka has strong U.S. support. Finally, Sri Lanka relations were highlighted as a tourism hotspot, particularly by New York Times, which named Sri Lanka the No. 1 place to visit in 2010. The Embassy of Sri Lanka in Washington DC and I have worked extensively with media personnel, particularly after the war.

Q: The President strives to make the country a Marvel of Asia. How do you plan to contribute towards this target?

A: As Ambassadors, this is the time to prove ourselves. The President, Secretary of Defence and the Government of Sri Lanka have done the most difficult task - eliminating terrorism and bringing peace to the country. Now the turn is ours. If all the Sri Lankan ambassadors throughout the world work more aggressively now to bring investment, promote tourism and talk about the positive developments that are happening in this country, then automatically the President's vision will come true. We can already see the progress just by looking at the positive economic figures, the rise in tourism and the redevelopment projects.

Q: Tourism is one major area that the Government is targeting to develop. How do you convince the US tourists to visit Sri Lanka?

A: I have noticed that if someone comes to Sri Lanka, no one will say bad things about Sri Lanka. They only have good things and positive things to say about our country. However, many US tourists do not come to Sri Lanka because we have not marketed Sri Lanka in this sector. I spoke to the management of the Tourist Board, and I am glad that the Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, is now also the Minister of Tourism because he is positive thinking and supportive. If we work according to a proper plan, we can attract US tourists to Sri Lanka. Many people say that Sri Lanka is far away and that is why US tourists are not going to Sri Lanka. But they visit countries such as Maldives, Thailand and India. Therefore, you know that it is not about the distance. We have not marketed Sri Lanka properly.

To change that I started this programme called Ambassador's Signature Tour, about four months ago to create awareness about Sri Lanka. I took a group of about 25 people to Sri Lanka in August. We invited not just tourists but also opinion makers and business people who have social networks. I also hold meetings and gatherings both at the Embassy and at my official residence where I make presentations on tourism in Sri Lanka, our food, tea, culture and such features. I have been carrying out these programmes from the time I took up my appointment and since then I have been able to get about 600 people interested in coming to Sri Lanka.

Everybody who came on the 'Ambassador's Signature Tour' paid for their own way - there was no cost to the government. But these people, many of them professionals, all went home and talked about how great Sri Lanka was. A travel writer and a film location specialist also went on the trip. They all loved Sri Lanka.

Q: You arranged a top business meeting with the President while he was attending the UN Sessions. What was the outcome of the meeting?

A: We had more than 100 business people to lunch with the President.

The message from the President was that Sri Lanka is open for business. That was late last month. Some of those who attended the luncheon were interested enough to come this week to our Public-Private Partnership Conference that we just finished in Colombo. Now comes the work of continuing the discussion, winning investment commitments and making sure that these businesses invest in Sri Lanka.

We've had a lot of interest in investment in the North and East.

Q: You took over duties when the war against the LTTE was reaching its peak and the military was engaged in the massive humanitarian operation to rescue over 280,000 civilians. What were the major challenges you faced during that period?

A: That was a very difficult period. My job was to counter the reports that were mostly critical of Sri Lanka. When someone would criticize us, I would call them up and suggest that we meet face to face so I could give them the full story. I spent a lot of time meeting with members of Congress to do the same thing. Once the conflict ended the tone began to change. It might not seem like it but we do have a lot of supporters and fans in the U.S. Government and in the U.S. Congress. And we have more now than we've probably ever had.

Q: How effective is lifting the US travel restrictions on Sri Lanka to bring more Americans to the country?

A: That was a very important development. We have been pressing the State Department to make that change since the day after the conflict ended in May 2009. Many others, including the Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, had been asking the State Department to lift the travel warning.

U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis and her staff at the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka were especially helpful. The lifting of the travel warning, coupled with Secretary Clinton's words of encouragement, helped convince America and its allies that Sri Lanka had found a peaceful, permanent solution to the conflict. Although not a lot of U.S. tourists had not started visiting Sri Lanka at that time, this gave a message to the world that Sri Lanka is safe.

Q: At the moment what is the view about Sri Lanka in the US?

A: We've seen a lot of positive changes in attitudes. Most Americans support us. They know we are democracy and that we've defeated terrorism. When our critics make noise we move quickly to get our story out. The more Americans we get to travel to Sri Lanka the better things will get.

Q: Recently, the Tamil pro-LTTE diaspora has appointed their leaders for the Trans-national government and Rudrakumar in the US being the President of it still propagates LTTE separatism in the US. What actions have you taken to enlighten the US authorities about the pro- LTTE activities in the US?

A: The vast majority of Tamils in the U.S. are happy that the conflict is over and the LTTE is gone. They contact me to tell me this. I think their sentiments often get lost in the controversy that the pro-LTTE Diaspora generate, which we believe is less than one present of the 40,000 Tamils in the U.S.

A few of those who supported the LTTE have now taken their place in these organizations. It is not a lot of people so I am not too worried about their impact. We talk constantly with the FBI and U.S. Department of the Treasury about LTTE influence in the U.S.

They are watching groups and individuals who still support the LTTE, and the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that groups and individuals can't give material support to terrorist groups. That was a significant ruling in our favour. The U.S. recognizes the LTTE as a terrorist group, and in the past the FBI has shut down several pro-LTTE fund-raising organisations. We continue to work with the FBI and Treasury Department.

Q: You have started a discussion series with the US Congress. What was the outcome of it since its first meeting in September?

A: I actually began meeting with members of Congress during the conflict. I wanted them to understand the hostage situation the LTTE had created. The meetings proved to be a good way to make sure the right story was getting across.

My staff and I also have met with the Congressional aides who follow foreign affairs and Asia for Congressmen and Senators. Some of those aides wield a lot of power on Capital Hill. We especially move quickly to meet with our critics. I think it is tougher to be critical of someone or something when you're sitting face to face.

I've met more than 75 representatives and Senators and I have focused on the important committees, such as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I will continue to meet with them. I invite everyone of them to visit Sri Lanka and to come and see for themselves what is going on here.

Q: Do you think there is a change of attitude for the better from the US authorities towards Sri Lanka?

A: Undoubtedly. The statement from Secretary Clinton helped, and so have the efforts of Michael Delaney, the assistant U.S. Trade Representative for South and Central Asia.

They're supportive of economic development as a way. We should be very grateful to Michael Delaney for pushing this approach, because it was not always popular within the U.S. Government. As the President says, if there is no peace there is no economic development, and if there is no economic development there is no peace.

Q: Do you think the talks over the labour issues on the US GSP will be positive for SL?

A: Yes. Sri Lanka has very progressive labour policies. We have been pioneers in labour standards.

In fact, representatives of the U.S. Government are here this week giving seminars on doing business in the United States.

Q: Were the US authorities made aware of the progress made in resettlement and rehabilitation of ex-LTTE caders?

A: We talk about this constantly with our colleagues at the U.S. State Department, in the Pentagon, at the White House and in Congress. I tell them that I don't know of an other country that offers terrorist a chance to forget the past and join society as a peaceful, productive person.

Q: Reconciliation is one major commitment that the international community expects the Sri Lankan government to fulfill while the UN SG is having his own panel on Sri Lanka. What was the US response to the LLRC appointed by the President?

A: I feel it is my job to educate the U.S. Government about the LLRC.

We point out that the mandate is broad, the membership diverse and the process open. It really helps to be able to point the articles on the LLRC's latest hearings, and tell everyone that the LLRC has heard from everyone from IDPs to the Secretary of Defence in public testimony.

Q: What is the progress of getting the support from the Tamil Diaspora in the US in post conflict development activities?

A: We have an active dialogue with members of the Tamil Diaspora.

There have always been many Tamils in the U.S. who think of themselves first as Sri Lankans. I continue to meet with Tamil community groups throughout the U.S.

Q: You Started your career as a tea taster and finally owned your own tea exporting company, have you been able to promote Sri Lankan tea among the US?

A: I promote all Sri Lankan products. I happen to know a lot about tea, but I've severed ties with my company.

The U.S. is a coffee country, but some teas, like green teas, are gaining popularity there for their health qualities. Americans also drink a lot of iced tea, and we might think about promoting our teas in special blends for tasty iced teas. I would love to see some Ceylon Tea specialty stores in some of the bigger cities where a premium is put on food, places like Washington, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

I think people would be enthusiastic about tea tasting at shops like that.

I'm in a dialogue with the Tea Board about having private sector tea centres to promote Ceylon Teas. They will learn that drinking tea is healthy.

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